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A Homework Reboot: Math Strategies and Writing Tips for ADHD Brains
“Just sitting down to focus on math homework is a battle.”
“I feel like I’m always nagging my child about their writing assignments!”
As most parents know too well, math and writing are complex subjects made infinitely more challenging by ADHD symptoms like difficulty sustaining focus and mental effort. Math and writing also require extensive working memory, or the ability to mentally juggle multiple pieces of information to execute a task. And working memory deficits, as we know, are common in ADHD.
These unique barriers to learning require equally novel strategies and techniques to effectively improve your child’s math and writing performance, boost their confidence in school, and reduce frustration at home on all sides. Here are some of my favorites.
Math Strategies for Students with ADHD
1. Fill in learning gaps
Math is cumulative. A child with ADHD may be a “Swiss cheese student” if they have holes in their learning. With incomplete foundations, they might get lost and frustrated as they try to learn advanced concepts. Avoidance and math anxiety typically follow.
- Talk to the teacher to understand where your child is struggling the most. Reinforce those skills at home. (Depending on your child’s needs and grades, hiring a tutor might be best.)
- Good old-fashioned practice. Math workbooks that emphasize repetition are great for reinforcing skills and boosting confidence over the summer. A few minutes a day is sufficient. Avoid workbooks that preview skills your child hasn’t seen.
- Math websites and apps also help build skills at the user’s pace. Some favorites:
2. Revisit basic homework and study habits
Strong homework and study habits help close learning gaps or prevent them from forming. If math is a struggle for your child, begin by teaching them to do the following:
- Refer to class notes. Have your child review examples of similar math problems they’ve already solved if they’re stuck on homework. Too often, students with ADHD operate under an “I either know it or I don’t” mentality, and they give up when they see something new. Reviewing previous work will instill a growth mindset and teach your child self-sufficiency.
- Compare notes with classmates. Confer with friends to fill gaps and reinforce learning, especially if your child’s notes are unreliable. (The Cornell Notes system, I’ve found, works well for students with ADHD.)
- Create and take practice tests to study for upcoming exams. Glancing at a study guide or class notes doesn’t count as “studying.”
- Draw out word problems. Visuals can help your child understand the question and work out an answer.
- Use graph paper to keep digits and lines organized, which can help eliminate careless mistakes.
3. Practice math outside of the classroom
Keep your child’s math skills sharp by pointing out all the everyday situations where math comes in handy. Some ideas: Ask your child to…
- …measure out or chop up ingredients for meals.
- …calculate prices based on listed discounts.
- …write the grocery list and estimate the total.
- …figure out the tip after dinner at a restaurant.
Go further with each situation. Ask things like:
- Is a three-fourths cup of flour closer to zero or one?
- What would 25% of the bill be?
Writing Tips for Students with ADHD
Writing is a multi-step, multi-faceted process that requires students to think about grammar and punctuation; spelling; clarity; structure; and vocabulary — not to mention understanding and fully responding to the prompt. That’s why writing can be so overwhelming for many students with ADHD.
1. Organize thoughts to reduce overwhelm
- Graphic organizers (like Venn diagrams and flowcharts) are visual frameworks that show relationships between things. These tools are great for externalizing ideas, creating outlines, and giving working memory muscles a break.
- Act as a scribe. Write (or type) as your child speaks. Best used in elementary or middle school, this technique helps students get over the hump of starting on an assignment and can be augmented by asking guiding questions to encourage thought.
- Speech-to-text tools are increasingly common (think of the voice typing feature in Google Docs) and work well for students who are overflowing with ideas, but struggle to put them in writing. Transcription services like Rev can clean up raw text, making it easier for your child to edit their work.
2. Look for writing (and reading!) opportunities
- Start a dialogue journal. Spark a conversation (about anything) with your child through a notebook where you both write responses daily. Do not correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Keep the activity light and fun to encourage writing.
- Schedule DEAR time. “Drop Everything and Read” for about 15 minutes a few times a week. Make it a family activity to increase buy-in.
- Audiobooks are just as enriching as books.
- Turn on TV captions to sneak in more reading time.
3. Don’t forget handwriting and typing
- Pencil grips teach students how to properly hold writing tools to reduce fatigue and increase functionality.
- The right keyboard can boost focus and productivity. Raised keys are great for tactile feedback, but flatter, quieter keys may decrease distractions.
How to Do Better in School: Additional ADHD Tips
1. Devise a homework formula that avoids burnout.
- Let your child have down time before they start work.
- Some students focus better with a bit of background noise and bustle. Noise-canceling headphones can reduce distractions in a busy area.
- Fidgets are ever-popular options that can help increase focus.
2. Trick the brain.
Often, the toughest part about getting started on homework or studying is overcoming negative emotions around it. Short spurts of effort, followed by breaks, are great for escaping the brain’s self-preservation mode.
- Encourage your child to use timers, even if only for 5 or 10 minutes of work at a time.
- If countdowns make your child anxious, focus on completing one task – like getting two sentences of an essay down – at a time.
3. Encourage self-advocacy.
Knowing how to speak up and ask for help is an important life skill. The email template on this page will guide hesitant, shy kids in politely but firmly asking teachers for what they need.
4. Focus on a positive parent-child relationship above all else.
- Avoid passing judgment. Overreacting about incomplete assignments or poor study habits will only cause your child to shut down. Instead, start a dialogue: “I notice you have five overdue assignments. Tell me about that.”
- Avoid power struggles. Give your child space and options when tensions run high. Say, “I know math and writing are frustrating. Come find me when you’re ready for help.”
- Seek outside help. You don’t have to be your child’s teacher. Somebody else – an older student, a professional tutor, etc. – can take those reins. Outside help offers one-on-one attention and consistency, and it reduces family stress and conflict.
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “‘I Can’t Focus!’ When ADHD Impacts Your Child’s Math & Writing Performance” [Video Replay and Podcast #397] with Ann Dolin, M.Ed., which was broadcast live on April 20, 2022.
Math Strategies and Writing Tips for ADHD Students: Next Steps
- Free Download: 20 Learning Strategies Designed for Students with ADHD
- Read: How to Remove Hurdles to Writing for Students with ADHD
- Read: 18 Tips to Sharpen Your Child’s Math Skills
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